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Football: All red and all conquering

The Untouchables: United's dominance is spreading fear and making it harder for rivals to compete; Ian Ridley says that Arsenal have a duty to the rest of the Premiership today
English football has a big problem and it is getting bigger. It is called Manchester United. The Premiership, so it tells us, is probably the most competitive league in the world. Not like Spain or Holland, or Scotland indeed, where one or two teams dominate. United, though, seem on a mission this season to disprove the theory.

Already, only one-third of the way through the campaign, they are four points clear of the team that has so far looked best equipped to challenge them in Arsenal, whom they face this afternoon at Highbury in a match of huge significance for the league. If Arsenal cannot topple them, who can? And what then?

United's form is particularly disturbing for the rest of the competition as usually it is only after Christmas and the end of the attention-occupying Champions' League round-robin that they really hit their stride. They have done so only fitfully so far; at Everton in the Premiership and at home to Juventus. Yet still they seem untouchable, the midweek win over Feyenoord, coming after the 13 goals against Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday, another example of their imperious form. "They are in an ideal period," the Arsenal coach, Arsene Wenger, admitted.

Thus Arsenal are probably playing for the rest of the Premiership this afternoon. These may be early days but if United begin to stretch into the distance, it is unlikely they will be caught, given their depth of squad and experience of title run-ins. This season's would be their fifth championship in six seasons. And while they may have been a little fortunate to win the last two, thanks to the shortcomings of Newcastle United and Liverpool, it could even have been seven out of seven but for late failings of their own.

Consider these words: "In these days of over-pitched evaluation, any team which, in the space of five years, won the championship of the First Division of the Football League twice and the FA Cup once would be hailed as the team of the century - or thereabouts. The startling achievement of the United after its inclusion in the premier Division, in establishing that list of awards, tends to be overlooked."

They were written of the early 1900s by Percy Young in his 1960 book Manchester United. The modern team under Alex Ferguson, with two Doubles, has gone way beyond even that as they begin to assemble a record in domestic competition to match, even surpass, Liverpool's in the 1970s and 1980s.

But there is one important difference from that era where one club also dominated, an ominous and almost sinister difference with serious consequences for the foreseeable future.

In the days before marketing men thought of making money out of players' pictures on duvets, some clubs were plainly more equal than others, because of gate receipts. Not to the extent of United now, however. Six weeks ago they announced record profits of pounds 27m, up 80 per cent. They are now valued at pounds 450m on the Stock Exchange.

Not for them just the one sponsor any longer. Now United want to follow the Champions' League format and embrace a host of them. And we can rest assured that there will be no shortage of candidates. In addition, with Old Trafford a third larger than any other stadium, their gates continue to be 15,000 more than any other club's, providing them with some pounds 4m of revenue a season beyond anyone else's. And while they may lose money in establishing their digital TV station, it will surely soon run into huge profit, such is their widespread fan base.

All this gives them a financial power in the long term with which other English clubs will be ever harder pressed to compete. Two decades ago one could see how teams aspired to the standards of Liverpool by seeking to emulate their philosophies and playing methods. Now with United, it is unlikely ever to be possible in terms of resources. Ironically, United have shown one way to compete, in youth development. And now there is no restriction on overseas players, they field more natives than any other top team; seven Englishmen against Feyenoord. The long-term potential is at present being matched in the short term on the field. "They are looking very confident. I would say they are the strongest in Europe at the moment," said Wenger. "They can win the European Cup. I said this last season and now they have the experience as well.

"It is going to be difficult for us but not impossible. United are not unbeatable. It is important for us to win but no matter the result, it will not be over for us or other teams. Many still have the possibility to challenge them this season - Liverpool, Newcastle, Chelsea. They look at the moment as if they can score when they want but this feeling can disappear quickly. They can have a bad period." United go to Southampton in mid-January.

Today, the portents for anything other than a United victory do not look promising. Arsenal will again be without the suspended Dennis Bergkamp and the injured Marc Overmars. It leaves them short of creativity and thus goal potential, as three barren games have shown.

"He will start today," Wenger announced confidently when it was pointed out that, alarmingly, Ian Wright had not scored in six seasons for Arsenal against Manchester United. But for all the French coach's new influence it could be a day when Arsenal revert to type and the old hands in the team look for a George Graham performance: keeping it tight at the back and trying to win the match from a set-piece.

There are several reasons why Arsenal have begun to struggle of late, culminating in their first defeat of the season by Derby County. Indiscipline and the loss of the irreplaceable Bergkamp is the most important. "He is the first player we find when we win the ball," says Wenger. "He is not only dangerous for scoring goals but he is the first attacking part of our game." The stand-in Nicolas Anelka has looked raw and wasteful by comparison.

Another reason is that their first flush of energy and enthusiasm for Wenger's system seems to have dissipated. It relies on closing down the opposition and winning the ball high in the field, from where they spring instantly into attack. Wright has never been especially fond of such work, preferring to save himself for the penalty area. "We were really good at winning the ball at Derby but much less good at going forward when we had it," said Wenger. "At the beginning of the season we were quicker but Overmars played an important role in that. We have been less good lately in transforming defence into offence."

By contrast, United have been quite devastating on the break and can attack teams from all angles. Predictable they are not. The current change from nutty slack to hot Cole is a bonus rather than necessity with Teddy Sheringham, Paul Scholes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also on the prowl. Ferguson now has the luxury of time in his search for a proven European striker.

All this without the drive of Roy Keane, but then it has always been the trademark of Ferguson's United that when one falls another rises. He once failed to sign Paul Gascoigne but Paul Ince arrived. Alan Shearer turned him down but then came Eric Cantona, who has hardly been missed this season as Sheringham's influence grows. Now Nicky Butt takes on Keane's mantle and David Beckham inches infield to help out.

The largest straw to be clutched by United's pursuers today is that fatigue after a midweek trip abroad sets in. We will have confirmation, incidentally, that the game has gone mad if Alex Ferguson is punished for his entirely understandable reaction to Paul Bosvelt's assault on Denis Irwin at Feyenoord while the perpetrator goes free, even allowing for United's excesses in the first meeting of the teams.

The interaction between Ian Wright and Peter Schmeichel will undoubtedly be watched closely today after Wright's bad tackle last season but Wenger played down talk of any bad blood between the sides, dating back to the Old Trafford brawl of 1990. "Yes, I have seen pictures," said Wenger, who had his own spat with Ferguson last season, told to "keep his mouth shut" after suggesting the season should not be extended for United.

"History is history," he added. "We can make it different now. Two- or three-hundred years ago there was war between England and France and now there isn't." Don't mention the lorry drivers' strike to him; I did once but I think I got away with it.

One hopes that Arsenal will have learned from their early-season errors and instead concentrate on the task in hand; restoring some competition to the Premiership and reassuring people worried that United are becoming too big to be cut down. "I can tell you," said Wenger, "that we will be giving everything to make them happy."